HK heritage: “Once lost but now found” exhibition at Oi!




In the middle of a busy commercial and residential district in North Point, a Grade II historic colonial-style building surrounded by highrise looks rather out of place here. Built in 1908, this heritage building was the clubhouse of the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club located on Victoria Harbour’s foreshore. But the reclamation project in 2009 changed the area’s landscape and now the coastline has since moved northwards.

Located at Oil Street, the building was converted into Oil Street Artist Village from 1990 to 2000, and in 2013, the Government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department developed it into Oi! art space aiming at promoting arts and providing venue for exhibitions.

It was my first visit to the art venue; from afar the green lawn and outdoor seating area looks like an oasis in the busy district. It also appears to be a popular lunch spots for white-collar workers in the area.






The exhibition “Once lost but now found” explores the geographical history of Oi! and its relationship to the sea. As a witness to the course of time and the evolution of cities, the sea evokes emotions and memories, responds to the development of natural ecology and, at the same time, shapes the cultural ambiance of the city and tells the story of the island.

Four artists Zheng Bo, Leung Chi-Wo and MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix) were invited to explore the relationship between nature, culture and society, examining the history, present and its possible future.

Chinese artist Zheng Bo‘s text installation “You are the 0.01%” was inscribed boldly on the lawn. The project is based on two publications: In 2011, economist Joseph Stiglitz’s published article titled “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.” He writes, “The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year.” Then in 2018, three scientists published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled “The Biomass Distribution on Earth.” They estimated that humans account for only 0.01% of Earth’s biomass, but consume 30% of the biosphere’s total primary production.

Zheng Bo‘s project aims to address the issues of inequality and biosphere inequality. The grass on the lawn reminds us that we are only 0.01%, and we must protect the rest of the ecosystem.


Zheng Bo, YOU ARE THE 0.01%

Zheng Bo, YOU ARE THE 0.01%

Zheng Bo: You are the 0.01%


In the main gallery, a conspicuous bamboo installation entitled “Ghost Island“, two videos and documentations are installed by MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix). Created for the 1st Thailand Biennale 2018, “Ghost Island” is a 9-metre high bamboo construction covered with piles of ghost fishing nets collected in the sea around Krabi. The installation recalls the particular geology of the surrounding islands formed by the accumulation and stratification of numerous distinct layers. It also addresses waste at sea, and the difficult but necessary labour needed to protect our environment. Reconstructed in Oi! is a smaller version, partially built by Cheung Chau Island fisherman and Hong Kong beach-cleaning volunteers.

One of the video shown at the exhibition records the construction of three artificial islands designed by the artists on a tidal beach near Krabi on Thailand’s Andaman Sea. The other records a fictional day for a fisherman living on the Andaman Sea’s Ghost Island. Both videos are fascinating, and they address environmental issues facing these fishermen, including rising seawater levels due to global warming.


MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), Ghost Island

MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), Ghost Island

MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), Ghost Island

MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), Ghost Island

MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), Ghost Island

MAP Office (Laurent Gutierrez and Valérie Portefaix), Ghost Island


In another room, Leung Chi Wo’s “Scratching on the surface” installation is presented in a dark room with a two-channel video projected on a long wall behind a pool of actual seawater installed in the gallery. The videos are reflected on the pool’s mirror water surface.

The installation is based on the notion of memory—our own memory and water memory—a controversial theory devised by French scientist Jacques Benveniste. Using words and imagery of nature and water, the poetic installation was shot in various locations in Hong Kong and Thailand, all connected ultimately by water, which echoes the fluidity of memory.


Leung Chi Wo, Scratching On The Surface

Leung Chi Wo: Scratching on the surface


In a separate building, architect team Streetsignhk was commissioned to create the ‘Sign City’ immersive installations, featuring Hong’s Kong’s famous neon signage. Various traditional signage and signboards are installed in s small room covered with mirrored walls and floor. Outside of the room, visitors are invited to create their own signboards and get to know the different aspects of this dynamic building component. The craft of neon signage is dying in Hong Kong, and hopefully this exhibition would bring awareness to this unique heritage that makes Hong Kong’s streetscape so special. You can read more about this topic via my previous post here.


  sign city

  sign city




Hong Kong’s streetsigns & urban typography

Sunbeam Theatre

Neon lights and advertising billboards outside of the iconic Sunbeam Theatre in North Point


This post is a follow-up of the previous one on Hong Kong’s urban typography… Over the years, I have documented the city’s streetscape and the relationships between visual communications, architecture, and its perpetually changing identity.

Hong Kong has always known for its neon signage, yet since the 1990s, the industry has declined rapidly, as building regulations have tightened due to safety and structural reasons, and the traditional neon signs are now replaced by the cheaper LED ones.


sammy's kitchen ltd signage

Sammy’s Kitchen Ltd signage


One of the city’s iconic signage was a giant neon cow suspended above a steakhouse in the Western District since 1978. The restaurant’s founder, Sammy Yip, designed the 10-foot-tall and 16-foot-wide neon sign and it was then handcrafted by sifus (masters) who burned and welded the shapes in their studios. Sadly, the city’s Buildings Department decided the sign was unsafe and ordered it removed in 2015. By chance, I took the photograph above (without acknowledging the unfortunate future fate of this signage) before its removal, which subsequently encourages me to continue to document Hong Kong’s ephemeral cityscape.


luk yu tea house

neon sign

mido cafe  Neon sign of a pawn shop in Wan Chai

hourly-rate love hotel nathan road

Top row: The facade and neon signage of Luk Yu Tea House in Central; 2nd row: a trendy restaurant in Wai Chai; 3rd left: Mido Cafe in Yau Ma Tei; 3rd right: Neon sign of a pawn shop in Wan Chai; Bottom: An hourly-rate love hotel on Nathan road has three types of signage!


The best resources on Hong Kong’s neon signage can be found on the interactive online exhibition website: Mobile M+: NEONSIGNS.HK launched by M+, the new museum for visual culture in the West Kowloon cultural district. It features over 4,000 photos and personal stories of neon signs from members of the public, and it is a fantastic platform that pays tribute to this unique dying art form and traditional craftsmanship. I particularly love the short documentary by cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, on Hong Kong’s neon world. In the film, we can trace Doyle‘s inspirations and how the neon signage has influenced his visual style in films such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels directed by Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai.


“Gleam Series” by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils

“Gleam Series” by Alexandre Farto aka Vhils


Christopher Doyle: Filming in the Neon World


Aside from neon signs, Hong Kong’s cluttered signage is ubiquitous and unique to this city. The overwhelming amount of visual information is in sync with its dense high-rise and chaotic streetscape. Every sign competes with another, and it is impossible to digest all the information at once… hence walking down Nathan Road in Kowloon can be an exhilarating and draining experience for foreign tourists.


temple street

central signage

Top: Temple Street; Bottom: Soho from the escalator


In the old days, small shop owners used to appoint scholars or renowned calligraphers to inscribe shop names by hand. Unfortunately, the handwritten calligraphy skills have been replaced by computerised print technology since the 1990s. Handwritten calligraphy gradually faded from the main roads of the commercial distrists, resulting in the demise of this unique trade and the loss of calligraphic artisans.


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Handwritten calligraphy for shops


Traditionally, gilded signboards symbolise the reputation of the shops. The gold-plated or painted gold calligraphic characters are seen as a status symbol for these shops. The characters are carved out of wood as either engraved or embossed by artisans. And the embossing effect is more challenging than engraving because of the Chinese cursive script style. Aside from wood, other materials such as metal and acrylic are also used for shop signage.



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central shop  central shop

central shop

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Embossed or engraved calligraphic signage for shops


Yet, the best places to spot traditional gold-leaf gilding techniques are at temples, monasteries and shrines. Often you will find two verses of a poem on the sides of the entrance, and if you look at them closely, you will see that every calligrapher has his/her unique writing style. The style can be bold, elegant, robust, refined and subtle… and this style would – hopefully – be synonymous with the identity of the shops or temples.







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hong kong

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Temples and shrines often showcase gold-leaf gilded name and a poem on the sides of the entrance


This is only a glimpse of what is around us all the time… you don’t need to be a graphic designer or typographer to appreciate the diverse signage that communicates to us daily when we walk down the streets of the city we live in. As much as I love spending time in nature, I also love seeing quirky and wonderful man-made sights that found in vibrant cities. And urban typography-spotting is an activity that all of can enjoy whilst everyone else around you is looking down at their mobile phones. Look up and you can be pleasantly surprised from time to time.



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“Typography and the sea of words” exhibition at CACHe HK



The building and courtyard of CACHe on Western Street, Sai Yun Pun


In recent years, an influx of international art galleries and art fairs has somehow transformed Hong Kong – the infamous cultural desert – into Asia’s glossy art hub. To be honest, I am not sure if this has had much impact on the general public, but at least art is longer seen as totally inaccessible.

Yet these art galleries focus mostly on the commercial aspect and target at wealthy collectors locally or from Mainland China; it is seldom to come across a gallery that dedicates to Hong Kong’s unique heritage, arts and culture.

Luckily, the non-profit conservation group CACHe based in Sai Yun Pun is a here to fill the gap. It is a hidden gem that is rarely mentioned in guidebooks, and not even many locals are aware of its existence.




“Typography and the sea of words” exhibition at CACHe’s gallery


Located in a Grade II historic building, which is formerly the Western Plague Hospital and Western Public Dispensary, the Conservancy Association Centre for Heritage (CACHe) was established in 2005 to promote the conservation of history, cultures and heritages in Hong Kong. It regularly organises community heritage workshops, thematic talks, excursion to historic architectures, heritage cultural tours, exhibitions and oral history workshops for the public, schools, organisations and corporations.

In the last few years, I have paid several visits to CACHe when I was in the city, and I have always enjoyed their exhibitions that resolve around the local heritage and culture. Their last exhibition “Typography and the Sea of Words – The Study of Hong Kong Urban Landscape” was one of my favourites as it focused on the often neglected aesthetics of the city: urban Chinese typography.




Hong Kong’s unique calligraphic signage


The exhibition showcased various calligraphic styles that used to dominate the city’s landscape (before the international chained shops and glossy shopping malls took over), and the importance of preserving the techniques and the dying art of handwritten signage.

It also included interviews with several handwriting artisans in the city – from inscribing shop signs, letterpress printing, neon sign making, stencil making, acrylic and wood sign making to computer font design.





Interesting typography is all around us if we pay more attention to it


There was a free catalogue that accompanied the exhibition, but unfortunately, there was none left by the time I visited. I begged the staff to give me display copy and she was quite reluctant, but later, she went into her office and found me a last copy for me to take home. I think the informative catalogue is priceless as it documents the vanishing art form and heritage of Hong Kong. The loss of an important craftsmanship and city identity saddens me a great deal, but it also makes me become more aware and appreciative of the preserved sights and aesthetics that are still around that make this city special.








Another wonderful past exhibition: “Unfinished Old textbook” displaying old textbooks and teaching materials that evoked old classroom memories, and the cultures and values of life advocated by the community.